When it comes to SEO, almost always the discussion tends to be focused around building links and creating great content. Whilst there’s no denying that these two elements of SEO are important for overall site performance – there’s one topic that is often overlooked – and that is, site structure.
Site structure is one of the most important elements of any website, it’s at the core of SEO – and it’s definitely something that should be given a lot of thought and consideration before actual development of any site begins. I stress the importance of factoring in site structure planning before development begins, because it can be quite painful trying to “fix” a site with poor site structure once it’s too late.
This can be especially true for sites that have grown considerably and have a large amount of content and data.
In this article I’m going to cover –
- Why site structure is important for SEO
- How you can create a solid site structure by reverse engineering your competitors
Why site structure matters
Your website is built on the foundation of it’s structure. The way all of your pages, your content, categories, URLs and more are all put together makes up what site structure is. Much like the framework of a house – it must be strategically planned out, before you start thinking about tiles, carpet and curtains.
It can be very easy to simply start building a site, and invest all of your efforts towards design, colours, logos and photos etc, and forget about site structure and SEO. Site owners tend to fuss over the trivial stuff. They randomly add pages, content, more pages, and more categories, then find themselves with a website where it’s virtually impossible to find anything.
This results in links, pages and navigational menus all over the place.
It’s a total nightmare.
This is an all too common mistake I find when working with business owners especially because they’ve not given their site structure any thought at all, and in the end find their site extremely difficult to not only use, but manage.
When your site structure is poor, it can have a negative influence over a number of key site elements, such as user experience, search engine crawling, conversion rates, onpage optimisation and more.
Let’s now have a closer look at why having a good site structure is important.
A poor site structure can often leave visitors feeling frustrated when they’re unable to find information quickly. When users become frustrated – they leave, and when that happens, it not only affects your sales figures but it can also affect your rankings in Google.
Bounce rates are signals that Google appear to be looking at more closely to determine engagement levels – both within the search results and onsite. I’ve actually seen this tested by Rand Fishkin on Twitter and seen some pretty compelling results. It appears that pages that have high bounce rates within the search results – are often “overtaken” by pages that demonstrate longer engagement times (this may be influenced by click through rates also). As to whether this measurement is determined at a page level or site level, who knows, but it’s certainly interesting – and it’s proven.
I don’t want to go off topic within this article, (I’ll cover more on that topic in my next blog post) but for now, high bounce rates can cause your website to perform poorer in the search results. This is why it’s essential to keep your site structure tidy and well organised so visitors can quickly find what they’re looking for.
Remember, user experience matters, and it matters more now than ever.
The way in which link equity is passed between pages on your site, is directly influenced by your site structure. There are many terms that come to mind when I think of this strategy, “link juice”, “silo-ing”, “shaping” etc, however at the end of the day, it’s really about implementing a sensible internal linking structure that maximises your link equity.
Internal linking is simply a term that defines links that are pointing to pages within your own site (“internal”). In other words, pages on your site, pointing to other pages on your site.
Link equity can be utlised much more effectively with a good site structure. That’s simply because it flows (link equity) logically between parent categories, subcategories and pages.
As mentioned above, this strategy is often referred to as “silo-ing”, but I’ve never been a fan of that expression. Bruce Clay provides a very detailed and useful explanation here.
There’s nothing worse than being on a site and not being able to find anything. This is where a poor site structure usually leads to confusing navigation menus.
A good site structure can help the user through simplified navigation. In particular, through the use of breadcrumbs.
Wikipedia defines breadcrumbs as “The graphical control element Breadcrumbs or breadcrumb trail is a navigation aid used in user interfaces. It allows users to keep track of their locations within programs or documents.”
Breadcrumbs are a simple navigational tool, allowing users to quickly move between pages without having to return to the parent page or the home page in order to find the desired information. This not only enhances user experience but helps with internal linking and also helps pass relevancy signals to the search engines – through meaningful and relevant anchor text.
You would have seen them on plenty of sites. Here’s how they look on my site.
Footer links probably don’t need much of a mention, however I’ve performed extensive heat map tracking across hundreds of sites, and I know that footer links tend to get a lot of use. A good site structure will allow you to implement smart navigational items within the footer that will help guide visitors quickly to information on your site.
I’m often asked, “John, how do I get those links in Google beneath my URL?”
These are called ‘site links’.
Here’s an example of how they look in the search results.
Whilst you cant tell Google which links you want to display, you do have some control.
Firstly, within Webmaster tools, Google provide a ‘site links’ tool that allows you to request the ‘removal’ of any links that you don’t feel should be shown. Secondly, a good site structure will help Google determine best relevancy, and display the most important pages as they should.
A poor site structure on the other hand will probably result in all sorts of random pages being displayed, or worse still – none at all.
Here’s some information from Google on site links.
Improved crawling efficiency
Search engines “crawl” websites, essentially going from one page to another on your website, then taking that information, and storing it within what’s called an “index”. When search bots are faced with having to crawl a website with poor site structure it can lead to a number of potential issues, such as –
- taking too long to crawl
- abandoning the crawl due to looping or latency
- being unable to access desired sections/pages of your site
- crawling sections/pages of your site that it shouldn’t
I’ve seen sites with extremely poor site structure show incredibly slow crawl times within Google’s Webmaster tools (in excess of 6,500ms) That might not seem like much, but when your site should be around 50-250ms it is certainly much higher than it should be.
It’s really difficult to say with absolute certainty just how Googlebot behaves when crawling a site, but I do know that from sites that I’ve looked at, once I’ve sorted out site structure, the crawling efficiency definitely improves.
Be sure to keep an eye on Webmaster tools under “crawl stats”. If you notice any big spikes like this, something may need attention.
How to plan and implement a great site structure
This is what a great site structure looks like.
At the top your home page (which is the root domain). Beneath that your parent categories, sub-categories (if applicable), then your pages.
This should be your desired objective.
Every single page should “live” within it’s own category, except of course, parent pages, which are often –
- about us
- contact us
- terms and conditions
Having these pages hanging off the root is fine.
- ….etc etc
However, your inner categories and pages, should look like this…(example only)
As you can see, each page is assigned it’s correct category. It flows nicely and most importantly of all, makes sense.
Okay, so what’s the best way to do this?
A word of caution
It might seem simple enough, but trust me, I’ve built enough sites to know that trying to plan out a sites structure can quickly become a nightmare if you’re not prepared. It’s can be really easy to sit down and think, “right, I’ll have this done in half an hour”, then find yourself still struggling 5 days later.
You’ll find yourself thinking –
- Which category should these pages go into?
- I’ve got two categories that are basically the same, but I need both, what do I do?
- I can’t delete these pages, but they don’t fit into any category?
- I’ve got too many categories
- I think I need to rebuild my site, it’s beyond saving – help!
Something else you need to be mindful of is that if you plan on restructuring your site, (not build a new site) then you’ll need to make sure you set 301 redirects so that you don’t lose your rankings. I wrote a detailed article about how to do that here.
Okay, enough about that, let’s get straight into it.
Reverse engineering your competitors
One of the most effective ways of building out an intelligent site structure quickly, involves reverse engineering.
To me, it makes sense to look at what your competitors have in place and replicate what’s already working. There’s really no need to reinvent the wheel, although I must stress NOT TO SIMPLY COPY.
You’ll want to look at all of your competitors and ask yourself –
- How do they have their categories setup?
- What sort of page names are they using?
- What’s their URL structure like?
- What’s their navigation like?
- Which pages are they interlinking?
- What keywords/terms are they using for their categories?
Of course, it makes much more sense to look at sites that are doing well in the search results, so be mindful of which competitors you look at. Focus on the ones that are dominating the search results – and look for clues.
Now you might be thinking, “John, this seems really complicated, and would surely take an enormous amount of time”….but no, there’s a very quick and easy way to reverse engineer the site structure of any site.
I use what’s called “Screaming Frog”.
Here’s how it’s done.
For this example I’m going to reverse engineer petbarn.com.au
Firstly, download Screaming Frog
Once you’ve downloaded and installed it, it’s just a matter of entering in the websites URL and clicking on “START”. Screaming Frog will then do a complete crawl of the website and return all of the urls. (to view just the urls, select “internal” from the top tab, and filter by HTML.
Just like this below.
Once it’s completed, simply export to XLS as shown below.
Once you’ve got it in a spreadsheet, sort the URL by either ascending or descending (it doesn’t matter). What you want is each URL grouped alphabetically, because you’ll want to “group” them by category. (see below)
As you can see, I’ve grouped each URL by its parent category.
In this example, I can see for this particular site, they’ve used “cats”, “dogs”, and “birds” for their categories, which makes sense because it’s an online pet store. Then they’ve filed each of the appropriate pages and content for each category under that category.
This is great because it allows me to see exactly how they’ve structured their site (based upon their categories) and it provides me with insights into what might be best for my site, as well as which keywords and terms might be best for my categories – which in turn helps me plan out my site structure.
At this point, you don’t want to worry too much about page names, you can do that later. Just focus on categories.
If you’re looking at multiple sites (which you should be) it’s best to create new tabs for each site (as shown below). That way, you can cross reference and take notes.
Something I really like to do, is to open up notepad on my computer, and actually type out my proposed URL/site structure so that I can see it visually.
Here’s an example.
I do this for a number of reasons. They are –
- I want to actually “see” my intended URLs before I build/restructure my site.
- I want to make sure they look like they make sense
- I want to make sure they’re not too long
- I want to make sure I’m not keyword stuffing anywhere
- I want to make sure they’re clear and meaningful
- I can get it clear in my head before starting
I may also whip out the pen and pad and scribble something like this up quickly beforehand in order to get it right in my mind.
Your site structure really is the foundation of your website.
It’s the beginning of your SEO efforts (aside from your domain name and technical stuff like hosting)
If your site structure is a mess, then you’re going to making it incredibly difficult for yourself to build a site that can grow effectively and perform well in search. Not to mention, simply being able to manage your site.
If you’re interested, I touched on site structure here, where I talk about using the card sorting method. Check it out, its very useful.
If you have something to say, I want to hear it. Perhaps you’d like to add something? Perhaps you know of another tool or resource that’s useful to help plan out site structure? If so, post up your thoughts or comments below. Id really appreciate it.
I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, be sure to share this with your friends or leave a comment below.